I’ve picked up a new habit lately — more of a tic, perhaps. If I’m getting lunch or a coffee with a friend, I usually keep my phone in my pocket. My brother is a few years younger than me (18, I’m 21) and his social cohort generally finds it acceptable to browse their phones sporadically even on such occasions. Attitudes among my peers are more mixed but tend toward the negative: Most of my friends will place their phone facedown on the table or keep it in their pockets, and they would likely excuse themselves if they had to respond to a message or check their e-mail. Here’s the tic: If one person pulls out their phone, I pull out my phone. I used to do this consciously, if I was expecting a message or following a developing news story, since it is no violation of etiquette to check your phone if others are checking theirs. But now I do it unconsciously too — oftentimes I won’t even notice until the screen is displayed in front of me. I think this started happening about six months ago for me. I’ve kept an eye out lately, though, and largely confirmed my suspicions: The habit is pretty widespread — another instantiation of our collective and growing dependence.
I was born in 1996, which puts me either at the very tail end of the Millennials or at the very beginning of the following generation (the most orthodox term, “Generation Z,” doesn’t seem to have caught on), depending on whom you ask. In theory, this places me at the cusp of the cohort that grew up with smartphones, but I was a bit of a latecomer. I didn’t have any phone at all until I was in seventh grade, which was uncommon but by no means unique for someone of my age in 2008, and for the following four years I was the proud owner of a cheap Nokia flip phone that still used the ten-digit keypad for texting, so if you wanted to say “hey im almost here,” you would just press — and I’m not exaggerating here — “443399904446025556666777780443377733.” By the eleventh grade, when I upgraded to a smartphone, people found this quite amusing.
So I’m probably less attached to my phone than most my age. I don’t have very many apps, in part because I took the cheapest possible upgrade two years ago and so I’m always running up against the storage limits of my phone. I text a fair amount, but I’m not usually texting. But I have come of age in a world dominated by smartphones, and in a generation whose (rapidly changing) social norms and relationships have been structured around ubiquitous phone usage. And Jean Twenge’s highly popular article in The Atlantic seems exactly right to me.
Millennial think pieces — such as essays on smartphone culture — are enormously popular, but also a little tired. The familiar piece, arguing that so-and-so social behavior is a sign of the failure of Millennials to internalize such-and-such a social attitude or set of values simply isn’t very compelling without some sort of quantitative backing. An older writer often will be insensitive to the cultural attitudes of the matter being addressed — take all the articles worrying about hookups, for instance, while rates of casual sex are probably lower among young adults today than they have been for most of the recent past. A younger writer may be ignorant of the realities of earlier generations: I can never know exactly what it felt like to be 21 in the 1990s or the 1980s, for instance, so it’s hard for me to tell whether the foibles of my generation are local or global.
But Twenge’s article doesn’t fall into either trap, in part because it is backed up by a great deal of statistical data, and in part because it makes a much broader case than do most pieces of its type. Smartphones, Twenge argues, are precipitating a mental-health crisis among the generation that is growing up with them. The data are unmistakable: high-schoolers go out with their friends considerably less than they did ten years ago; they date less; they get less sleep. It is, of course, impossible to be entirely sure that these phenomena are caused by smartphones, but the trendlines are strong circumstantial evidence that something dramatic changed right about when the iPhone started to become popular. The most dramatic shifts all begin between 2010 and 2012 — right when iPhones transformed from an expensive curiosity to a social phenomenon at my high school and schools like it across the country. Most troubling of all is the enormous spike in loneliness among teenagers that coincides quite closely with the popularization of the smartphone — from 21 percent of teenagers saying they frequently felt lonely in 2007 to 31 percent in 2015.
There has been no shortage of pieces warning that phones are making us flaky, or distractible; that Tinder makes dating impossible, and that Instagram is preventing us from enjoying the world around us; that young people don’t know how to hold a conversation or how to ask a girl out. And so on. Depending on the claim, these complaints have more or less merit, but they seem to me more or less a form of griping, a way of particularizing pretty general frustrations: Dating is difficult; a lot of people don’t particularly appreciate art museums or landscapes and would rather just send pictures to their friends; young people are pretty awkward in general. I don’t really know if smartphones are making these conditions worse, although I find it plausible. But they don’t get at the real problem with smartphone culture, and with social media more broadly: It provides access to an addictive, toxic world that substitutes a deadened and unfulfilling landscape of superficial engagement for real sources of meaning. This isn’t as fun as complaining that Millennials take too many selfies, and it runs so counter to the pro-technology culture that there is something almost embarrassing about stating it, but perhaps most people my age feel it to some degree. I have lost track of the number of times I have heard from someone that they find themselves browsing social media without any real purpose, compulsively checking their messages and their notifications, and finding little more than a bored sense of emptiness at the end of it all.
Paradoxically, as smartphones have made us more alone, I suspect that they have also made it harder to be alone.
I want to be wary of falling into the trap I outlined above, where I complain without any real reference frame that life as a twentysomething is worse than it has ever been and everything is going to hell. So there are some caveats: First, even if you spend quite a lot of time on your phone, that still leaves room for a rich and varied life. Even if the most pessimistic appraisal of modern technology is right, it is just, like any number of things, an impediment to finding meaning and happiness in life. It doesn’t make a full and worthwhile life impossible; it just makes it slightly more difficult. Second, insofar as my intuitions and arguments are shaped by my own personal experiences, impressions, and anecdotes, they should be taken with a grain of salt. My life may be idiosyncratic, as may be the social settings I have grown up in, and in the absence of quantitative data, none of it should be taken as conclusive.Third, I don’t mean to imply that my attitude toward technology is representative of my generation’s on the whole. Although many of the concerns I have are widely shared, there is a considerable amount of disagreement as to whether technology is positive or negative on the whole. Probably the great majority come down on the opposite side from me.
But consider the possibilities. Texting, Facebook, and other social media and personal interactions could be substitutes, they could be complements, or they could be neither: that is, it could be the case that spending more time on your phone increases the amount of engagement you have in person, since it allows you to meet new people and build deeper friendships with the people you already know; it could decrease your in-person social engagement, since it replaces conversations and other forms of interaction that would otherwise be had in person, makes people less willing to do the hard work of going out to meet people, and supplies endless amounts of low-quality entertainment to keep us occupied; or it could be neutral, functioning purely as an additional means of communication. If it were more complementary, we would expect to see that teenagers and young adults are going out more than they have in the recent past, independent of other trends; if it were more substitutive, we would expect to see that they are going out less. And the data are pretty clear on this: Twenge notes in her article that teens are considerably less likely to get together with their friends every day then they were at the beginning of the 2000s, and that the decline is accelerating. But they also spend less time doing homework or sleeping. The additional leisure time is simply eaten up by phones.
Now, consult yourself: Think of the feeling you have after a pleasant afternoon or evening spent with people you like; imagine the effect it has on your mood, your sense of belonging and self-worth. And now think of the feeling you have after an afternoon or evening spent texting with people you like, or playing games on your phone, or, if you’re a certain type, scrolling through Twitter. In my experience, there’s no comparison. Texting isn’t actively unpleasant, and I have even had conversations by text that meant a lot to me. Maybe at its best it’s like writing letters or talking to someone on the phone in past eras, although I very much doubt that it usually reaches that standard. But remember what the substitutive effect means. Imagine that you had been planning to go out with friends but the plans fell through and you ended up texting with each other, idly sending Facebook messages, or, most likely, doing whatever you do to kill time when you’re bored and on your phone. This would probably be somewhat disappointing; indeed, you might well seek to make plans with someone else to fill the newly free time. Now imagine this happening dozens of times a year. That cumulative effect is the effect of the smartphone.
Phones are addictive, they’re not good for us in large doses, and they may do considerable damage to the mental health of young America. Surely any solution will start by establishing social norms about phone usage.
Paradoxically, as smartphones have made us more alone, I suspect that they have also made it harder to be alone. It would be perfectly intuitive to assume that instant access to an expansive world of communication makes us less lonely. But does that logic really hold up? When I’m alone, I now can be precisely aware of every person who isn’t reaching out to me, or whom I’m not reaching out to. Worse still, I have instant access to an enormous network of social news: From pictures of social gatherings on Facebook to Snapchats of concerts, there is a good chance that I will be aware of whatever enjoyable things my broad circle of acquaintances is up to.
I wasn’t alive in the 1980s, but I was alive four years ago, when my smartphone usage was far more limited. (Sooner or later, the memories of that antediluvian time will all be fragmentary and distorted, and then there will not even be any benchmark to measure our contemporary experience against.) My recollection is that being alone was a qualitatively different experience, then: With no pressure to check in on anyone, solitude was less of a statement, felt like less of a failing. I don’t think the change is just a result of my growing older: I’ve spent periods of time alone and without access to a usable phone while traveling, and my impression was that, after a brief period of dislocation, the earlier, more relaxed attitude toward solitude returned. I felt lonely occasionally — loneliness has been around for a long time, after all — but I was released from the suspicion that there was something deeply anomalous about being alone.
There is some empirical evidence for this view, too, although it isn’t entirely dispositive. A number of studies have suggested, for instance, that social-media usage is negatively correlated with happiness and feelings of well-being, and is positively correlated with loneliness, although the mechanisms are not obvious. Then there is the fact that loneliness has increased so dramatically among teenagers while social interaction has decreased relatively modestly. There are multiple ways to read the evidence here, but the most plausible reading seems to me to be that there is something about phones and the access they provide us with to each other that makes us lonely, above and beyond the intrusion into our existing social lives.
None of this is to say that smartphones and social media have nothing positive to offer us. The benefits in convenience are enormous, and there is something unambiguously positive and important about being easily able to stay in touch with people who live far away. Nor, of course, can we plausibly return to the days before smartphones. But we will need to confront the reality sooner or later: Phones are addictive, they’re not good for us in large doses, and they may do considerable damage to the mental health of young America. I don’t know precisely how to address this, and I despair sometimes at the scope of the problem. But surely any solution will start by establishing social norms about phone usage. I’m far more attached to my phone than I should be; it probably wouldn’t be the worst thing for me if my dependence met with some disapproval. It’s hard to imagine that there aren’t many others who feel the same way. But no such norm can come about without a broader admission that our society has a problem. We don’t seem to be there yet.